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Cult of Bibi has damaged American Israel advocacy

How would Washington Zionism cope with an Israel without Bibi? Ben Judah thinks it could have a positive outcome.

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US President Donald Trump East Room of the White House
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US President Donald Trump East Room of the White House (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
    Some things are forever in Jerusalem. But they are not Prime Ministers. The news that Sara Netanyahu faces an imminent graft indictment for abuse of public funds - the accusations include pocketing recycling refunds - has made the fall of her husband Benjamin Netanyahu seem thinkable. This political earthquake would shake not only politics in Jerusalem but expose the failings of pro-Israel advocacy in Washington which has allowed itself to become Bibi advocacy.
     
    From Aipac to the Israeli Embassy, the institutions that matter in DC Israel advocacy have allowed themselves to become too enthralled with Netanyahu and too enmeshed with his loyalists in the Likud. Though it studiously invites non-Likud Israeli politicians, the annual Aipac Conference has come to resemble, less a gathering of an all-American coalition to support the Jewish state, than an annual Netanyahu rally in Washington. AIPAC remains officially non-partisan, but in practice is seen as on the US right mirroring Bibi’s own politics, whilst those who attend the annual Washington jamboree are overwhelmingly Bibi fans. Aipac is increasingly far from its all inclusive and ecumenical mandate  - previously seen as essential.
     
    The Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer is a former Netanyahu strategist and confidante. Dermer served as the Prime Minister's closest adviser for four years but has never really left. Despite his role as Ambassador Dermer is widely viewed in Washington as Netanyahu’s Ambassador first, as more a political fixer for the Prime Minister than for the country. This is a far cry from how former Israeli Ambassadors to Washington - who include national giants such as Abba Eban or Yitzhak Rabin - were seen in their day.
     
    It is all too apparent that pro-Israel think-tanks and pro-Israel media initiatives in Washington have confused being pro-Israel with being pro-Bibi. Projects such as the Zionist Organization of America, the Israel Project and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy are seen not only as friends of Israel but as special friends of Netanyahu. The views of Netanyahu and his Likud find themselves megaphoned whilst the views of the Israeli military, left and cultural minorities do not.
     
    There is because there is something of a Bibi cult of personality in the pro-Israel world that exists in Washington. Here he is admired out of all proportion to his reputation in Israel and regularly compared to Rabin and Golda Meir as a titan of the Jewish state. There is next to no discussion in this world of the building accusations of bribery and sleaze that risk toppling him at home. Instead Netanyahu is treated as a near oracular politician at fundraising dinners and AIPAC events. This veneration has slowly seen many of the leading pro-Israel donors transformed into financial backers of Netanyahu’s personal politics. The billionaire Sheldon Adelson in particular has, over the years, come to be seen as Bibi backer first and then only an Israel-backer second.
     
    No other Israeli politician has achieved this level of personal adoration in the Washington pro-Israel community as none was ever as American as the perfectly bilingual Benjamin Netanyahu. Not only does Netanyahu look and sound almost like an American Jew, but his great skill is that he has proved politically bilingual as well: effortlessly smooth and at ease in pro-Israel Washington where previous Israeli Prime Ministers were condescending, brusque and often frankly rude. Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak or Ehud Olmert were never at home like the US-educated Netanyahu on K-Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.      
     
    Netanyahu may cut a Churchillian impression in Washington but too many pro-Israel advocates in DC are satisfied with the sense of historical justice of seeing a powerful and aggressive Jewish leader throwing his weight around to ask themselves if he is actually helping to build lasting support for Israel in the United States. Netanyahu’s 2015 address to a joint session of Congress is a case in point. What looked superficially like a triumph of pro-Israel activism was a theatrical performance that achieved nothing in trying to stop the Iran Deal. What it did achieve was the animosity of the Obama Administration and many leading Democrats: undermining years of advocacy and making Israeli security seem a partisan issues.
     
    For the moment the end of Netanyahu is neither a certainty or even a likelihood. But one thing is certain: there is no Israeli politician who could fill his place as simultaneously a Jewish political actor in the United States. It is laughable to imagine Yuli Edelstein, Avi Gabbay or Nir Barkat generating their own DC cult of personality. Furthermore, Netanyahu might be last Israeli politician capable of doing this. Tomorrow’s Israeli politicians will not have one foot in the common pre-Holocaust Old Country as Netanyahu still seems to.
     
    How will Washington Zionism cope with an Israel without Bibi? Since moving to Washington in January 2017 I have come to believe that, counterintuitively, nothing would strengthen Israel advocacy in the US more. The Bibi cult has blinded the pro-Israel community to how divisive and partisan a Prime Minister Netanyahu has become in Washington itself: where he is effectively seen as a Republican politician by many Democrats. Ever since he semi-openly backed the Republican Mitt Romney for President in 2012 Netanyahu’s own agenda has allowed Israel to become a partisan issue in US politics. This is something many seasoned pro-Israel advocates know can not only do harm to the long-term relationship between Israel and the US.
     
    But above all, the Bibi cult has blinded pro-Israel advocacy towards Israel itself. Not only has this increasingly blinkered pro-Israel Washington from the Israeli strategic and diplomatic thinking beyond the Prime Minister’s office. The Bibi cult has blinded the pro-Israel community to the overwhelmingly liberal US Jewish community. It is not for nothing the next generation of Jewish billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg or Google’s Sergey Brin are not as close to Israel advocacy as their predecessors. The Bibi cult is just too right wing for them.
     
    Ben Judah is the author of This is London

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